by Tina Madison White
A few years ago, any company seeking to establish a trans-inclusive environment found itself sailing into unchartered waters: the mere notion of a trans-friendly workplace was a new frontier, a blank space at the edge of our cultural map in need of definition.
Now, however, companies find themselves confronted by a bewildering array of guidebooks, organizations, and standards when it comes to the question of trans inclusion. So how to make sense of it all?
If I have learned anything after 30 years of working with corporate leaders on the question of trans inclusion, it is that programs that look strong on paper aren’t always the most effective. Sometimes the intangible factors make the biggest difference.
As you chart your own path to a trans-inclusive work environment, bear in mind these five suggestions. They can be the difference between another bloated corporate program (full of more hot air than substance), and a set of principles that genuinely inspire your organization to foster a culture of authenticity and integrity.
1. Recognize the opportunity to reinforce company values.
No organization can establish a storied reputation with faint-hearted measures. If you want a culture that is known for being welcoming and engaging, it’s imperative that your leaders are vocal about it—and that it’s not an instance of “all talk, no action.”
When I came out as trans at work, my company’s leaders held a series of meetings with every employee who worked with me. They communicated clearly with me and all other employees that these meetings weren’t about me—they were about what our company stood for. Our leaders explained to us all that any failure to treat me with respect would be an attack on the company’s core values.
These meetings consumed a lot of time. But there was a big payoff. Morale had been languishing in our company, and many colleagues had grown cynical about our leadership’s commitment to its people and company culture.
In the weeks following my transition, something unexpected happened. To my surprise, the hot topic of conversation among colleagues wasn’t me and my transition; rather, it was my company. People were delighted to know that they worked for a company that took such a forthright position about its culture and value system. My manager even joked that we needed to do this more often.
In short: make your program about what your company stands for, not about what the transitioning colleague is going through.
2. Make your policies explicit and conspicuous.
Naturally, you need to put good policies in place. There are many guides and examples to borrow from, and organizations to help out in the process. (Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and Human Rights Campaign offer many useful resources.)
However, your policies will count for little if they are hard to find, and therefore only loosely enforced. A colleague who is still closeting their gender identity isn’t likely to risk exposure and dismissal through open inquiry. They don’t have a network they can tap with such a sensitive topic.
My company had a reasonably good set of policies regarding workplace equality. The problem was that, at the time I first considered coming out, I didn’t even know they existed. I was afraid to even enter a search query on our employee portal. What if someone was monitoring my activity?
If you are going to have inclusion policies in your workplace, make sure to do so openly and unapologetically. Keep in mind that employees may not be inclined to go looking for them. Keeping your policies quiet defeats their purpose.
3. Take account of preparation time.
When a transitioning employee approaches their company, many people (if not most) are taken off-guard—from supervisors to co-workers to security guards and other staff members. Any subsequent remarks and questions that are insensitive or ill-informed aren’t necessarily a product of ill will. More often than not, they simply reflect misunderstanding and poor preparation—and most of all, a preoccupation with the bathroom.
Gender transitions in the workplace involve so much more than restrooms. They are rife with legal, medical, and procedural pitfalls that can be easy to miss. When I transitioned, I was faced with a benefits team that was unable to answer most of my questions. Our information systems continued to present my old and new legal identities side-by-side for months after. It was disturbing to see a bearded Ms. White staring back at me from our online directory. I was also flagged by Immigration Services as a potential illegal alien because my social security identifier no longer matched the information on my employment records.
None of this happened because anyone involved was uncaring. In fact, those supporting me felt terrible; they had worked hard to address the challenges they anticipated. And they simply hadn’t had a chance to consider these issues.
Writing a strong policy is but a first step. Appoint someone early on to explore and anticipate potential issues. Chances are that they are more subtle than the infamous bathroom debate, and generally aren’t the ones that make the headlines.
4. Establish a single point of contact.
It is great to aspire to an HR department and information systems that are fully equipped to handle gender transitions. But transgender colleagues are a tiny population. And they pose some unusual challenges. Most people understand that.
I never expected everyone in my company’s support services team to become an expert in transgender issues. But I grew frustrated when, on several occasions, I was passed from one person to another in a daisy chain that seemed to have no end. No one’s job had been defined to address issues like mine. They passed me along to another person again and again.
My advice? Start small, making sure that at least one person is well-informed when it comes to potential procedural issues. What a transitioning colleague needs most is a single point of contact who is equipped and empowered to help them navigate territory that is unfamiliar to everyone concerned. Let that point of contact develop long-term solutions to company policies, procedures and systems.
5. Help create a community of “everyday allies.”
Many companies invest in educational programs to help colleagues to become better informed and more active LGBTQ allies. Often, such programs are structured as half-day seminars. Colleagues are told they will master a basic foundation of LGBTQ vocabulary, and will participate in discussions about awkward situations and proper pronoun use. Such programs are great educational tools, but they suffer two limitations.
First, they require that people invest time mastering something they may not be interested in. Most people would agree that you needn’t understand another person’s religion in order to welcome and value them at work. The same should apply to gender identity.
Second, such education programs call attention to our “otherness.” Most of us want to be known for our professional skills, not our gender identity. When I returned to the office as Tina, I simply wanted colleagues to welcome my contributions and ideas with the same interest they had shown before.
Workplace training programs are a great place to start for cultivating a trans-inclusive work environment. But make it clear to employees that being a good ally (at work, and in general) is more a matter of attitude and action than expertise. It is something that everyone ought to practice—much like being a gracious host or hostess at home. There are no universally “right” answers, and one person’s transition is a process for everyone.
Tina White built a successful career transforming businesses before she finally faced up to her biggest transformation project – herself. After trying for an unhappy lifetime to live as a man, she decided to live as the only person she knew: the one she had buried inside. She has never looked back.
Tina, together with Mary, her wife of eighteen years, devotes her time advocating for transgender rights and educating the public. In her book, Between Shadow and Sun, she shares what it was like for her and her family to struggle with her journey through gender. She manages PersonInside.com, a website devoted to transgender support and education. She has spoken in cities across the country and has appeared on National Public Radio and the Dr. Oz Show. She is the Director of Operations for Blue Ridge Pride, in Asheville, North Carolina.